Nepal's Maoist rebels believe in the peaceful transformation of their poor Himalayan nation, but will not rule out a return to armed struggle, their leader said on Thursday.
As the government and rebels hammered out the final details of a comprehensive peace deal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who goes by the nom de guerre Prachanda, said it was still too early to declare an end to the decade-long insurgency.
But even if the road to a permanent peace remained "tortuous", he was confident the end was in sight.
"We have a political agreement to change the socio-economic conditions in a peaceful way — a peaceful transformation is possible now and armed conflict is going to be over," he said in an early morning interview on a hilltop overlooking the mist-filled Kathmandu valley.
The Maoists have achieved their main aim — agreement to hold an election to a special assembly to draft a new constitution and, they hope, abolish the centuries-old monarchy.
Next month, they are due to join an interim government meant to conduct that election by June 2007.
Prachanda, a bespectacled 51-year-old former school teacher with a salt and pepper moustache, said that represented "historic change".
"There are some difficulties, but the peace process will not break, it will not derail," he said.
Nevertheless, the rebellion would not end until his forces were integrated with the national army, a process he expected to be complete shortly after those elections.
In the meantime, the "masses" would be on alert for any signs of "sabotage" or violence from "feudal lords", the monarchy or the army.
"If the old army and the old state will make a repression of our masses, if they will resort to any kind of violence against our masses, the right of resistance of the masses will be there," Prachanda said, speaking in fluent but accented English.
"Until and unless the integration of the army and developing a new national army is reached, it will not be over."
The peace deal was due to be signed later on Thursday, but the rebel chief said negotiations were continuing and the ceremony might be delayed.
Prachanda, who translated his name as "strong" or "militant", said he was confident the people of Nepal would vote to abolish the monarchy but would respect their verdict.
Maoists could not remain in government if the monarchy was retained, he said, but would try to peacefully persuade people they had made a mistake.
"If any kind of monarchy will be established, then we will not be part of the government, we will go again among the masses, try to convince them and we will try to organise a peaceful movement."
The rebels and the government have observed a ceasefire for more than six months, and have also agreed to confine their forces to camps or barracks in the run-up to the constituent assembly vote.
Last week, the rebels also agreed to store their arms under United Nations supervision.
But Nepalis say extortion and conscription have continued or even accelerated since the ceasefire.
This week, hundreds of young men, including boys of 15, were reportedly recruited in the countryside.
Prachanda denied forcible recruitment, insisting that unemployed youth wanted to join the rebels in the hope of finding a job.
Recent recruits would not be counted among those to be integrated into the army, he added.
Skeptics, notably the United States, have warned the Maoists' ultimate aim was to seize power by any means and they were not sincere democrats.
But Prachanda said the Maoists would use their time in the interim government to win over the doubters.
The rebel chief said he had never taken part in fighting or fired a gun in anger.
Although he was proud of the achievements of the insurgency, which cost more than 13,000 lives, he said he was upset by the violence.
"I am very sensitive in my nature. When large numbers of people were killed on any side, I was shocked," he said. "I could not sleep, I could not eat."